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A Lesser-Known Venus Visits The U.S. In New Botticelli Exhibit

Sandro Botticelli's <em>Venus </em>was painted after his best known work depicting the goddess, <em>The</em> <em>Birth of Venus. </em>
Sabauda Gallery
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sandro Botticelli's Venus was painted after his best known work depicting the goddess, The Birth of Venus.

The famous Renaissance painting of the goddess Venus, standing nude on a giant shell, has been appropriated, satirized and riffed on so many times — by everyone from Andy Warhol, to Lady Gaga, to The Simpsons — that it's easy to lose track of its origins.

Now, a major traveling exhibition tells the story of Italian painter Sandro Botticelli, who painted the Venus 500 years ago. "Botticelli and the Search for the Divine" features a different Venus — and many other works — visiting the U.S. for the first time. The show is a partnership between the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Williamsburg, Va., and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

David Mirkin produced "The Last Temptation of Homer" episode of The Simpsons. As Homer fantasizes about his ideal woman, his imagination goes to Botticelli's Venus.

"Her hair's blowing in the wind, it's exactly the way you would set up a film shot of a gorgeous woman," Mirkin says.

Mirkin pokes fun at the iconic image — but says he truly loves it.

"I think it's incredibly effective in terms of what it's actually trying to do," he explains. "Its sensuality is amazing. I don't know where he came up with the idea of her riding on a clam — I mean, that's the funniest part." (Actually, if you want to get technical about it, it was a scallop shell, not a clamshell. But just to be sure, we asked a mollusk expert.)

The curators of the exhibition say few people know much about Botticelli, but they're trying to change that with help from another Venus that's a focal point of the show. The artist painted this solitary Venus in the 1480s, after The Birth of Venus. The life-size painting shows her in a similar in pose, but her torso's strong contours and pale skin are covered with a sheer top. Her red hair is tightly braided, not blown by the breath of angels, making her more earthly than godlike.

"She's the poster for the exhibition — it sums up so much about Botticelli's attitude, his yearning to express ideals of beauty and human form," says Frederick Ilchman, chair of the MFA's Art of Europe department.

"It's not just he's a doing a new subject matter — the life-sized, human nude," he adds. "But that he's painting it with a new level of subtlety."

Botticelli's <em>Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist</em> was painted later in his career, around 1500.
/ Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Botticelli's Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist was painted later in his career, around 1500.

Ilchman says this Venus helps us understand Botticelli's quest for divine beauty. He walks to another of the two dozen paintings in the exhibition, one that shows the influence of the Renaissance and its search for knowledge: a portrait of the Virgin Mary and Christ child reading a book.

"In the second half of the 15th century in Florence there was a new appreciation of ancient art ... Greek and Roman statues," Ilchman says. "What I think is so remarkable is just how consistent his ideal of female beauty is. This Virgin Mary has the same delicacy of flesh, the beautiful features."

Boticelli's pursuit of realistic-looking divine beauty came to a halt after France invaded Florence. A zealot, Dominican friar named Savonarola took over the city, preaching fire and brimstone. Muscarelle Museum of Art chief curator John Spike, who conceived of this exhibition, says Savonarola's followers collected and burned books and paintings deemed indecent in the 1497 Bonfires of the Vanities.

"Botticelli was considered the best painter of beautiful nude women in the city of Florence," Spike says, "so everyone supposes that his works were burned in this way."

Somehow the Venus survived, but the deeply pious Botticelli believed Savonarola's teachings — and the artist was traumatized when the fanatic himself was burned on a pyre. Botticelli became reclusive, inward and devout. Spike says the works in the last section of the show reveal how his painting changed.

"His last works become neo-medieval, flat, no details, no attempt to represent a human figure under the drapery," Spike says.

The mood becomes somber, the warmer colors disappear and the eyes of the figures don't make contact with the eyes of the viewer.

"The sort of 'come hither' or the welcome you see with the Venus, these later paintings by Botticelli seem to be more hermetically sealed," Ilchman says. "They're kind of isolated, and not as expressive in the same way, but full of powerful emotion."

When the exhibition debuted in Virginia, Spike says two people fainted.

"Great works yearn to be understood," Spike says. "There's a wonderful word for yearning in Italian, it's bramare — [great works] yearn to be understood, and we, the spectators, yearn to understand."

And if visitors to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston yearn to understand more, they can buy one of the exhibition's thick catalogs in the gift shop — or, perhaps, a pair of Venus socks.

Copyright 2017 WBUR

Corrected: May 17, 2017 at 9:00 PM PDT
In this story, David Mirkin incorrectly identifies the shell that Venus is riding as a clamshell. It's actually a scallop shell. We make the same mistake in the audio and had also said the same thing in a previous Web version. Please listen to our on-air correction for more on mollusks.
Andrea Shea